Thursday, April 03, 2014

Marion Thorpe obituary

Pianist whose marriages made her a public figure

This piece was written by John Amis. Recently published in the Guardian 2014,
Marion Thorpe, who has died aged 87, might well have preferred a discreetly musical existence, notably as a prime mover in establishing the Leeds International Piano Competition. But the connections that she made along the way, with marriages to the Queen's cousin and opera administrator Lord Harewood, and the Liberal party leader Jeremy Thorpe, made her a much more widely known figure, if still a very discreet one.

She was born Maria Donata Nanetta Paulina Gustava Ermina Wilhelmine Stein in Vienna, though from early on answered to an eighth forename, Marion, by which she was known thereafter. Her mother, Sophie, was tall, blonde and seemed to float through life, all Viennese charm. Her father, Erwin, was a distinguished musician, a pupil of Arnold Schoenberg, chubby and scarcely 5ft in height; the strikingly beautiful Marion took after her mother in inches, but her father in complexion and dark hair.

He was Jewish, and the family left Austria in 1938. As a music editor with the leading Viennese publisher Universal Edition, he was equipped for similar work with Boosey & Hawkes in London. I first met Marion when she was 15: after tea on Sunday afternoons she and I would play Mahler symphonies on the Steins' upright piano, with Erwin bouncing up and down behind us, shouting instructions in German.

Marion studied at the Royal College of Music and played the piano professionally, not as a soloist but forming a duo with Catherine Shanks; they played works – many by Mozart and Schubert – for four hands at one keyboard.

Boosey & Hawkes's composing star at the time was Benjamin Britten. Stein oversaw Britten's work through the press, believing him to be the genius he turned out to be. Britten became like a member of the Stein family and Marion duly fell in love with the charismatic young – but gay – composer.
Britten had a great friend in George Lascelles, 7th Earl of Harewood, and in 1949 Marion became a member of the royal family by marriage to George; Britten composed them a wedding anthem. Since at that time the earl was 11th in line to the throne, the consent of King George VI had been necessary.

For a decade and more, Marion survived the transition from life in a flat in St John's Wood, north London, to living in Harewood House on a grand estate north of Leeds, sharing the housekeeping with George's mother, Princess Mary, who had the title Princess Royal. It cannot have been easy. Three sons were born in the 1950s: David, James and Jeremy. Marion spent much time travelling, in mainland Europe and farther east, especially India, and in doing so took in a lot of music, opera and theatre with George.

In the early 1960s, the earl was artistic director of the Edinburgh and Leeds festivals. He fell in love with Patricia Tuckwell – a onetime model and a violinist in symphony orchestras in her native Australia. They had a child, and Marion got a divorce in April 1967, being awarded custody of her children and a house in Orme Square, north of Kensington Gardens.

In 1963, she and the leading piano teacher Fanny Waterman started the Leeds International Piano Competition, which provided an early platform for such artists as Radu Lupu, Murray Perahia, András Schiff and Mitsuko Uchida. Their volumes of Piano Lessons have been bestsellers. Waterman became a dame, and in 2008 Marion was appointed CBE.

The pianist Moura Lympany introduced Marion to Jeremy Thorpe, who had been leader of the Liberal party since 1967. They married in 1973, but their happiness was shattered as a result of allegations brought against him by Norman Scott, a gay man with whom Thorpe was said to have had a relationship, and by Peter Bessell, a former Liberal MP who claimed that Thorpe had planned to have Scott murdered. Thorpe was committed for trial at the Old Bailey in 1979, charged with conspiracy to murder, and was acquitted.

This brought about the end of Thorpe's political career; he had resigned as party leader in 1976 and lost his North Devon seat at the 1979 election. Throughout the trial, Marion supported Jeremy, attended every court session and even interrupted a press conference. A BBC reporter, Keith Graves, asked if Jeremy had ever had a homosexual relationship. Marion shouted: "Go on, stand up. Stand up and say that again." Three years after the trial, Jeremy started to suffer from Parkinson's disease.

What with mixed feelings about her parents having different religions and the fact that her brother fought in the second world war on the German side, it is not surprising that Marion was reserved in her opinions, inclined to sit on the fence. She liked to laugh (not difficult living with Thorpe) and was good company, but did not make jokes or lead conversations. For relaxation she liked ice skating, which she was good at; and she enjoyed a bloody mary afterwards.

Thorpe and her sons survive her, along with six granddaughters, six grandsons, two great-granddaughters and four great-grandsons.

Marion (Maria Donata Nanetta Paulina Gustava Ermina Wilhelmine) Thorpe, musician, born 18 October 1926; died 6 March 2014

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